of Jonny Lang: Former Midwest Blues Kid Turns into California Rocker
Jon Bream, Star Tribune
October 12, 2003; SHERMAN OAKS, CALIF. -- As Jonny Lang, blues-rock guitar wunderkind, maneuvered the streets of this affluent Los Angeles suburb, he sang along with a gospel-tinged piano song.
Yeaaaaah! Believe it.
Lang, who shot to the top of the blues charts in the mid-'90s as a teenager with an old man's voice and a young man's guitar showmanship, headlined Gov. Jesse Ventura's inaugural ball and toured with B.B. King. But now it's bye-bye, Jonny Blues Boy; hello, soulful California rocker.
The Minnesota-bred star has moved, married and been born again -- spiritually and musically. He quit drinking, stopped smoking and abandoned the blues. On his third album, "Long Time Coming," Lang sounds more like Stevie Wonder than Stevie Ray Vaughan. And he even does a version of a churchy piano ballad set to a rhythm track by -- get this -- Eminem.
Jonny LangRene Macura"I felt at home playing blues guitar for a period, but I never felt at home singing it or writing it. It's not what's in me," said the guitarist/singer, who has sold more than 2 million blues-rock albums. "I grew up listening to soulful rock music; it's always been my preference as far as songs go. Honestly, I never had the blues. I was never this ridiculously tortured guy."
But will Lang loyalists buy Jonny Be Goody-Goody?
"Long Time Coming" will arrive in stores Tuesday -- five years to the month after his previous album was released. In popular music, five years can be a career. For Lang, five years is almost one-fourth of his life. At 22, he seems as calm and confident as Tiger Woods lining up a pressure putt on the 18th hole.
"It's been a good test of patience and finding out how confident you are in yourself," Lang said of his oft-delayed album. "I feel great about the timing of it."
As the suburban L.A. resident sped in his Mercedes to his hillside house on a sunny September afternoon, he sang along with the Edgar Winter piano song "Dying to Live" blasting from his CD player. The dude sounded so at home, rhapsodizing more soulfully than ever.
He had been practicing. Lang's interpretation of Winter's obscure oldie was an 11th-hour addition to "Long Time Coming." The hitch was that he had yet to hear the mix of the song with a string section and those Eminem beats.
"They just mixed it last night " he explained.
Lang knew his disc was overdue at the pressing plant.
But what's another day when the album has been more than three years in the making?
With this third major-label album, Lang wants to establish himself as a songwriter and singer. He co-wrote all but two of the tunes in his new style -- pop/rock with soulful, restrained vocals and occasionally muscular but articulate guitar work.
"I don't regret any of the vocal takes, the guitar lines, the songs," he said. "That's the first time I can say that."
He felt the change was natural and necessary. If he had stuck with the same old blues-rock, he said it would have been like trying to keep wearing the shoes you had at 15 when you're 22.
"They just don't quite fit anymore," he said. "You gotta go buy some new shoes."
He might still wear sneakers, along with spikey hair and a T-shirt and jeans. But he's not a kid anymore. He has always been focused, but now Lang is strikingly more articulate and talkative, business-smart and world-wise. OK, he had to ask the waitress to help him choose a "meat or chicken" entree for lunch at the Cheesecake Factory, with its overwhelmingly large menu, but he knew exactly which of the 50-some cheesecakes to order.
In 2000, after six years in music's major leagues, Lang decided to move to Los Angeles, get married and drop his bad habits.
And he found Jesus.
"In general, I was stuck in where I was going in a lot of ways, and in the way I was treating myself, the way I just looked at life," he said, declining to elaborate on the specifics because they're too personal. "God had a plan for my life and decided to turn me around."
He feels his faith is reflected on his new CD.
"Outwardly, I wouldn't consider it a Christian album," Lang said, his face suddenly glowing. "But a lot of songs are about my relationship with the Lord. Because of those changes in my life, they brought about restoration and healing to some things that were going on in my life and really made me a new person."
His band members have noticed.
"He seems happier," said pianist Bruce McCabe, Lang's sideman of eight years who wrote several songs on the first two albums. "There was a time when he smoked a lot and stayed up late, and he couldn't sing the next night. Now he doesn't drink or anything like that. He's doing really well."
Careerwise, the big hurdle for Lang has been the revolving-door leadership at his label, A&M Records. In fact, he has endured three unfamiliar chief executives during the making of his new album, which is why it has been a long time coming.
Minneapolis entertainment lawyer Ken Abdo was impressed by how his client dealt with the political music-biz machinations.
"He didn't get upset, angry or suspicious," Abdo said. "He handled it with eyes open and thoughtfully. Jonny's not a short-term thinker. He became an excellent decisionmaker and a better executive."
In the end, Lang shared the same desire as the A&M brass -- to reach more people with his music.
Blues CD shelved
Kid Jonny Lang got his start in Fargo, N.D., at 13, playing in a blues band. So he became known as a blues artist, especially after moving to the Twin Cities and making two million-selling albums for A&M -- 1997's "Lie to Me" and '98's "Wander This World" -- that each topped Billboard's blues chart. He also toured with the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and Sting and had a role in the movie "Blues Brothers 2000."
Lang made a third blues-rock album in Minneapolis three years ago with producer David Z and such big-name guests as Steve Cropper and Anders Osborne. But it was never released because A&M's executive upheaval resulted in different goals for the hotshot guitarist.
A&M's Jimmy Iovine -- who has had magical results with Bruce Springsteen and U2, among others -- paired Lang with rock songwriter/producer Marti Frederiksen, who had worked on recent hit albums by Aerosmith, Pink and Faith Hill.
"It felt like a lot less pressure with just the two of us writing all the songs together, and we both played [all the instruments] on the album," Lang said between bites of his chicken madeira. "To do it that way was really freeing. He helped me find the real me."
While he worked on the album in Los Angeles, Lang went through a lifetime of experiences: His bass player, Doug Nelson, died in a highway accident in late 2000; he switched from his longtime Minneapolis managers to a big-time Nashville manager, and he dealt with pianist McCabe having a brain tumor removed last year. Lang also moved to L.A., got married, bought a house in California and sold his place on Lake Minnetonka.
"I thought I was going to hate [L.A.] because it's a busy metropolis and I'm a more open-spaces kind of guy, but my heart just changed when I got here. I just love it," he said, adding that he moved because his wife's family and friends are there.
It was either that or ask Haylie Johnson, 23 -- an actress, indie-film director and aspiring singer whom he has known for eight years -- to move to Minneapolis. He and Johnson, a former cast member of the TV series "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," seldom make the L.A. music scene. He figures he has been to five concerts, the biggest of which was Hanson's recent acoustic gig.
He goes to church on Sunday and often on Wednesday and Saturday.
One day, Lang sang in the nondenominational house of worship -- Fernando Ortega's "Our Great God" -- but "nobody knew who I was at church."
Bending for the label
Lang wanted "Long Time Coming" to feature only his compositions. But Iovine brought him "Red Light," a moody, medium-tempo reflection that has become his current single. And A&M's new president, Ron Fair, who had produced recent hit albums by Christina Aguilera and Vanessa Carlton, suggested and produced the song "Dying to Live."
As Lang sees it, neither Fair nor Iovine gave him a makeover. The label doesn't tell him what to wear or to make videos with scantily clad women or to hire a younger, hipper-looking band. He has the same old touring Twin Cities sidemen, three of whom are old enough to be his father.
He doesn't see this new, more radio-friendly direction as selling out.
"I used to believe that it was possible to sell out; now I don't think there's such a thing," he said. "It's a matter of, what do you want to do with your career, what do you want to do with your life? What are you in the first place? Are you a musician's musician? Are you part musician, part entertainer? Are you all entertainer and music's just your tool to get in the public eye?
"For me, this is just what's coming out of me. I'm happy to do an album where it's about songs and the vocals more than the guitar playing," he said. "I want the music that's coming out of me to be a blessing to as many people as possible and to affect people in a positive way."
Radio programmers and listeners are open to the evolving Lang.
"I was pleasantly happy to hear not just a blues record; it's much more mass-appeal and poppy-sounding," said Lauren MacLeash, program director and DJ for Cities 97 (97.1 FM) in the Twin Cities.
Listeners' reactions have been "much better than anticipated," she said. "If you go away for three years, you can be forgotten; he came back with a good song, and people were excited about him being back."
FYI -- Jonny Lang
In concert: Dec. 11-12, Historic State Theatre, Minneapolis, 651-989-5151. Web site: http://www.jonnyonline.com